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Burns: 3 Things we learned from losing the playoff opener

Beat writer Bryan Burns recaps the Lightning's 4-3 loss to the Blue Jackets in Game 1

by Bryan Burns /

What a great start to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

What a lousy finish to Game 1 for the Lightning.

Tampa Bay played a near-perfect first period in Game 1 of Round 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets to open the postseason, the Lightning holding a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes and momentum firmly established on their side.

And then, as Ryan McDonagh said, the Lightning took their foot off the gas, perhaps feeling a little too comfortable with the ease in which they built that 3-0 lead and watched in dismay as that three-goal lead shrunk to two goals by the end of the second period and then was erased completely in a six-minute span of the third.

Now it's back to the drawing board for Tampa Bay.

"It's a tough lesson," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "Guys should be mad."
Fortunately for the Lightning, it's a seven-game series. They'll have a chance to recover Friday when they host Game 2 at AMALIE Arena.

But it'll take a 60-minute effort rather than the 20-minute performance they put together Wednesday.

Video: Cooper | Postgame ECQF Game 1

If the Lightning needed a reminder the playoffs are nothing like the regular season, Columbus certainly provided one Wednesday night.

Tampa Bay entered the postseason having completed the greatest regular season in franchise history and one of the best in the 101-year history of the National Hockey League. The Lightning's 62 regular season wins were tied for the most all-time in the League. Their 128 points were fourth most all-time. The Bolts were the only team ever in the League to win 30 or more games both at home and on the road.

None of that mattered in Game 1.

Columbus weather Tampa Bay's ideal start to the game, started to gain traction in the second by returning to what got it into the postseason and completely befuddled the Lightning over the final 20 minutes.
"We got a good lesson in coming out of the first period and playing the way we wanted to play and then you get away from it, sometimes, you can get away with that in the regular season but playoff hockey, teams aren't going to quit," Stamkos said. "They're not going to lay (down)."

Give credit to the Blue Jackets: They could have folded completely after going into the locker room down by three goals. After all, the Lightning won the Presidents' Trophy for a reason. They're the favorite coming in. They finished with an incredible 21-point lead over second-place Boston and Calgary in the final regular season standings, the largest gap in the NHL between first and second place since 1995-96.

Teams know how good the Lightning are. Typically, a three-goal deficit against the Bolts is a death sentence.

But Columbus kept fighting. The Blue Jackets found their game in the second, built momentum behind some key saves by goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who himself wasn't sharp early, and found a way to steal a win on the road.

"Each period you just have to let it go," Columbus defenseman Seth Jones said. "Whatever happened the period before, you just have to let it go. It's a new period, a new 20 minutes. We just kind of cut the period in half and see what we can do with each half of the period."

That's a lesson the Lightning could learn. They didn't let go of what happened in the first period. They carried it over into the second and third. Had they approached the second period with the mentality the game was still tied, perhaps the outcome would have been different.

Video: Hedman | Postgame ECQF Game 1 

When the Lightning came out for the second period up 3-0, their focus should have been on tightening up defensively and making sure Columbus got nothing the rest of the way.

Instead, they tried to go for the jugular, aiming for four, five, six or more goals to really send a message to Columbus.

And it nearly worked.

The Lightning had about a minute-and-a-half on the power play to start the second after a late first period penalty on David Savard for interference. The Bolts had two really good chances to add to their lead, both coming off the stick of Nikita Kucherov.

On the first, Stamkos and Kucherov were all alone down low, and Stamkos slipped a pass across the crease to a wide-open Kucherov on the back post, Bobrovsky sliding over to make a tremendous glove robbery on what looked like a sure goal.

Moments later, Kucherov struck iron with a well-placed shot from the right circle.

The ease with which the Lightning scored in the first period, however, may have come back to bite them. The Bolts got too loose with the puckas the second period progressed and turned it over with regularity, Columbus hemming the Lightning into their own zone for long stretches and forcing the Bolts to defend more as a result.

And the Lightning kept looking for the knockout blow rather than focusing on managing the puck well, which led to the Blue Jackets' first goal. Ryan McDonagh carried the puck into the zone and down toward the goal line before spotting Erik Cernak skating open into the slot. McDonagh's pass was ill-advised, however, having to travel through too many bodies and sticks to reach its intended target. Predictably, the pass was tipped out of Cernak's reach, sparking a breakaway the other direction for Nick Foligno to bury.

"We gave them some life with turnovers," Stamkos said.

With a foothold in the game now, Columbus went to work imposing its will, and suddenly what was a pretty comfortable game for the Lightning through the first 25 minutes or so became an increasingly difficult proposition.

"We played with a ton of emotion in the first period, the building was jumping and clearly had them on their heels and you build that lead, which is what you want to do," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "I think our mentality was we wanted to outscore them tonight instead of build the lead and shut them down. And when you have the mentality of you want to outscore teams, these are things that can happen."

Video: Steven Stamkos on the Game 1 loss

Tampa Bay was just the second team in NHL history, joining the 2015-16 Anaheim Ducks, to finish atop the League for both power-play percentage and penalty-kill percentage during the regular season.

But like was said earlier, none of what happens in the regular season matters in the postseason.

Columbus won the special teams battle in Game 1, and it's a big reason why the Blue Jackets were able to rally in dramatic fashion.

The game started well enough for the Lightning special teams-wise, Alex Killorn stealing the puck from Seth Jones at the point on a Columbus power play and scoring on a breakaway four minutes in for the game's first goal.

But Columbus got that tally back when Josh Anderson scored shorthanded with eight minutes to go to level the score 3-3.

That shorthanded goal came on a four-minute power play for the Lightning after Cedric Paquette took a high stick from Brandon Dubinsky. Leading 3-2 entering the extended power play, the Lightning had a golden opportunity to re-establish their multiple goal lead and stem the tide from the momentum Columbus had been building.

Instead, the power play was a disaster, Columbus tying the game shorthanded and the Lightning not getting much of anything in the way of quality scoring opportunities.

Moments after that failed power play expired because Alex Killorn was whistled for high-sticking with about a minute-and-a-half left on the double minor, Jones scored from the slot on the ensuing Columbus power play for the game-winner.

"Special teams battle that was so key for us all season long, we didn't get it done tonight," Stamkos said. "Got a shorthanded goal to start the game and get us going, but we get that four-minute and a chance to bury them and we give them a shorty.
"We just have to learn from this."

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